This amazing guest post was written by Jeriann Watkins Ireland, a writer and wellness enthusiast. We encourage you to check out more from Jeriann at her website.
In a recent conversation with someone who has been undergoing chemotherapy, I realized how many misconceptions there are about the immune system. Here was our exchange:
Them: “The doctors say I can’t get my teeth cleaned because there’s a higher risk of infection.”
Me: “Oh yeah, because the chemo has taken a toll on your immune system”
Them: “No, actually, my immune system has held up surprisingly well. I haven’t been sick at all. They just say I’m at a higher risk of infection.”
I wanted to explain that you can have a compromised immune system without being sick. I wanted to say that your immune system is what fights infections, so if you’re at a higher risk for infection it’s because your immune system has a higher risk of failing, meaning it is in a weaker state.
But the conversation quickly moved on, and I didn’t correct any of their misconceptions. So here’s some clarification on how the immune system works and what it does and doesn’t do.
The Basic Role of The Immune System
If you ever watched The Magic School Bus, you probably know that the immune system utilizes white blood cells to kill harmful bacteria in the body. But it’s much more complicated than that. It’s an entire system of cells, tissues, and organs working together. And as such, phrases such as “a weakened immune system” or “boosting the immune system” are too simplistic to be entirely accurate.
Overall, the immune system attacks foreign objects in the body in an attempt to stabilize and prevent illness. In the case of autoimmune disorders, the problem is not a “weak” immune system, but rather that it mistakes internal body functions and parts as external threats. This failure to recognize internal organisms causes the body to attack itself for no apparent reason.
There is little that actually weakens your immune system besides chronic illness and immunodeficiency disorders, which can be contracted at birth or throughout your lifetime. If you are generally healthy, that is a sign that yours is functioning just fine. Below are five common misconceptions and myths and what the real facts are behind them.
Immune System Myth #1- Displaying Symptoms of Illness Means Your Immune System is Weak
Besides the issue of “weak” being inaccurate, as we already discussed, this myth contains an inherent misconception of what illness is. The main cause of many illnesses is exposure. In a study on the common cold, 95% of adults who had the cold virus dropped into their nose became infected. Seventy-five percent of those displayed symptoms. So that means 20% of people still had an infection, making them technically “ill,” but their immune response didn’t include the common symptoms that we recognize as the cold.
That brings us to another point. Many of the symptoms we experience as signs of illness are actually our body’s immune response. Seasonal allergies occur because our body thinks that non-harmful substances (usually pollen or ragweed) are harmful. We sneeze and cough to expel unfamiliar substances. So sometimes, symptoms are actually signs that your immune system is working hard, not that it is in a weakened state. This is why illnesses like the cold and flu are seen as relatively mild in most cases because the awful symptoms we experience are simply the body’s natural response to the foreign matter.
Immune System Myth #2 – Isolate yourself when you’re sick
If you are not contagious, there is no benefit to isolating yourself when you’re sick, except for the possibility of rest, which we will discuss later on. Of course, the world is full of germs, but no more than usual, and they are no worse than the germs in your home. In fact, your home is more likely to be full of the germs that caused your illness. Plus, social interaction can boost your spirits, and a healthier mind promotes a healthier body. This study showed that those with more social ties were less susceptible to symptoms of the cold virus.
Of course, it’s important to avoid stressful situations, as stress does put a strain on the immune system and makes it less effective at fighting illness.
Immune System Myth #3 – Vitamin C fixes everything
Before you misunderstand this point, let me say, vitamin C is important for a healthy body. If you were deficient in vitamin C, your immune system would suffer. Given how little vitamin C our bodies need to function and how much can be found in the common diet, though, very few people suffer vitamin C deficiencies. Excess vitamin C can actually cause inflammation, which is an immune system response. That being said, the recommended daily dose of vitamin C is 60-80mg. Negative effects are likely to be felt at 2,000 mg. So you have some wiggle room. If you want to supplement with vitamin C and other immune-bolstering nutrients, there are many ways to safely do so, including pills, powders, and even IV therapy.
Immune System Myth #4– Exercise weakens your immune system
In every myth, there is a bit of truth. There are two ways that exercise can lead to an ineffective immune system. The first is if you’re exposed to harmful bacteria on dirty gym equipment. You can easily avoid this by wiping down equipment with a natural antibacterial cleaner before and after use.
The second way that exercise can be detrimental to your immune system is if the exercises you are doing cause undue stress on your body. Some people just can’t run on a regular basis without causing physical stress on their knees. Targeted stress can spread to other parts of the body. So make sure you choose exercises that work for your body, and that you’re performing exercises properly.
Immune System Myth #5- Vaccines weaken your immune system, just like antibiotics
Though opinions on vaccines have become highly political, the science of how they work is factual. Many people are concerned that vaccines weaken your immune system. While other concerns about vaccines could be valid (I would not recommend putting any substance into your body without researching it), this specific concern is based on flawed logic.
Antibiotics kill all bacteria in a certain part of your body, including healthy bacteria. Vaccines work completely differently. Vaccines have enough of a certain pathogen to introduce it to your body and help your body build up its immune response. Antibiotics weaken the immune system by killing helpful bacteria. Vaccines do not affect healthy cells (except in very rare cases).
So while I am all for being intentional and informed about which vaccines you choose for yourself and your family, comparing them to antibiotics or saying they weaken your immune system is false.
With these myths dispelled, you might be wondering how you can make sure your immune system is working at full capacity. Below are four lifestyle choices that detract from its function and four things that benefit it.
Negative Actors for Your Immune System
Stress– If your body is dealing with stress, be it physical or emotional, your immune system will be so busy trying to keep things stable that it won’t be able to fight new infections as efficiently.
Carcinogens– You probably know that carcinogens are substances capable of causing cancer. This is because they allow cells to mutate. Since your cells are a vital part of your immune system’s defense, mutations can result in cancer and other illnesses that your now compromised immune system isn’t strong enough to fight.
Unhealthy Fats– Certain fats are harder for your body to digest, especially under stressful conditions. If your immune system is busy digesting unhealthy foods, it’s less able to defend your body against airborne illnesses
Radiation– There’s a reason that cancer treatment results in higher risks for infection. Radiation kills cells pretty indiscriminately, just like antibiotics. It can even affect your DNA. In everyday life, radon gas, which can be found in many basements can have radioactive effects on your immune system. So be very intentional with finding and avoiding sources of radiation in your life.
Immune-System Positive Habits
Get Enough Sleep– Sleep allows your body to recover from stress. Getting the proper amount of sleep is vital to maintaining your immune system’s strength.
Stay Active- Being active keeps your blood pumping and allows your immune system to flush out undesirable compounds more quickly. The more active you are, the more active your immune system is.
Eat a Balanced Diet– The nutrients you consume are vitally important for maintaining your immune system’s function. Eat a variety of grains, fruits, and vegetables to avoid nutritional deficiencies that will leave gaps in its ability to fight disease and infection. The nutrients that most affect your immune system are vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene.
Find and Address Nutritional Deficiencies– Most common aches and pains are caused by nutritional deficiencies. Headaches, severe menstrual cramps, and even varicose veins can all be helped by changing your diet. Magnesium deficiency can cause jaw tension and symptoms of TMJ, which can prevent a good night’s sleep because of jaw pain, which then leads to physical stress and a weakened immune system. Looking up common nutritional deficiencies associated with your symptoms can help you address your diet and fill in any gaps. You’ll probably be surprised how many different ailments can be addressed by making sure you’re consuming enough of the same nutrients!
What do you do to keep your immune system in top performance? Share in the comments!